Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Born on a Blue Day, book review

Born on a Blue Day, a memoir by Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet, now in his late twenties, has written a memoir of his life - full of challenges, great gifts and unusual disabilities. He has savant syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and synesthesia, a very rare combination of neurological/developmental characteristics. As Mr. Tammet points out, savant syndrome became well-known after the release of the movie Rain Man featuring Dustin Hoffman as a savant. Like the movie character, the author has preternatural mathematical abilities. He explains that Asperger’s syndrome is a mild form of autism which affects his ability to interact and communicate with people, but as an adult he has learned to function quite well in the world and doesn’t feel the severe sense of isolation that he did as a child. Synesthesia occurs when people experience numbers and letters as having distinct colors, sounds, feelings or other attributes.

“There are moments, as I’m falling into sleep at night, that my mind fills suddenly with bright light and all I can see are numbers ­­– hundreds, thousands of them – swimming rapidly over my eyes. The experience is beautiful and soothing to me.” (p. 9)

In that passage and throughout the book the author eloquently describes what it feels like to live with his unusual combination of abilities and impairments. As such, he is a treasure trove of information for brain researchers. He has participated in scientific studies, written this book and made himself available publicly because he feels that it will lead to an understanding of disabilities on the autism spectrum and also to acceptance and tolerance of people who are different in any way. But the book is in no way preachy about disabilities; the chapters about his childhood and the challenges his parents faced raising him tell of the frustration and isolation that he felt and the stress felt by his family at times.
In something of an understatement, the author tells about his collection of bags and bags of chestnuts and the hours he spent collecting, sorting and counting them:

“One of the greatest sources of frustration for my parents was my obsessive collecting of different things…” (p.60) There were so many chestnuts in his room that his parents thought the weight might actually cause a cave-in of the floor so they moved them outside, still allowing Daniel to play with them until he lost interest and moved on to his next obsession.
The book provides a unique inside look at a person who has a very different way of looking at the world and yet is always striving to connect with the world, to strengthen his relationships, and to use his unique abilities to their best purpose. His writing style is clear, spare and succinct. He explains his literal reactions to events, his anxieties, rituals and compulsions quite candidly. He is honest and has no subterfuge or false modesty. He has a very realistic view of himself and comes across altogether as a person who would not only be fascinating to meet, but also as a basically good person.
Daniel Tammet, who speaks many languages fluently and learned Icelandic in less than a week, has an online business that sells language-learning software that he designs at http://www.optimnem.co.uk
and an accompanying blog for those interested in learning more about the author. http://www.optimnem.co.uk/blog/
I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys memoirs, has an interest in disabilities of any kind, autism in particular. It would be of interest to teen readers and parents of autistic children. If you like this book, you might also like the fictional The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, a murder mystery told from the point of view of an autistic teenager, and A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Maas, the story of a teenager with synesthesia coming to terms with her gift. Daniel Tammet also makes reference to the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) and of Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist with Asperger’s syndrome.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Speaking of "Blue Days", also try reading "Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color their Worlds":